Slate New Writing, 2007 - £6.00 

It is unusual, even in a small book of poetry, to find excellent work outweighing the merely average, or even poor; yet in Hugh Thomson’s masterly collection Rough Music this is the case. Of the eighteen poems, all but a handful—such as ‘Fireplace menu’ or ‘Mackenzie Beach at low tide’, which feel like occasion pieces —achieve a lasting heft and quality. Within ‘Sing me a shakuhachi song’, for instance, we see a resonant depiction of music’s ineffable power, its comfort and menace: 

Mendicant music, a noise for no ears,

just at the edge of the void

where a few reeds edge into deeper water

and the light is level,

level and grey,

still and level and grey like a warship at anchor 

Other poems do the same for the great tools and moments of our lives: history (“battered, uncomplaining, empty” in ‘St Francis and St Bernard’); the reassurance of language, even in its tree-like complexity, “bark smooth, soft and warm/as the arm of a sleeping child” (‘Home town’); or sex—“tangled together, no dreams, no lamentations, no regrets” (‘Clearing the decks – the Solway Firth’). Never obvious, Thomson’s work draws on the distilled quality of Japanese verse and the lyrical power of western traditions to subtle effect: 

It is so sudden, November.

The fag end of summer,

leaves still green, fruit still ripening on the tree,

cracks open and there is snow,

white as bones, in the bite of the wind


[‘For my father, in his 90th year’] 

Though the reader expects this wrought, ‘turned’ quality on every page, it is still a surprise to find poems which acknowledge the unpredictable disappointments of the everyday—“that hat with a hole in it, cold soup warmed up, lost shoes” (‘Tomorrow’s news’). They are an affirmation of life’s essential slipperiness. But in reading the poems we find our real comfort—come what may, the sharp and solid body of work in this collection urges us to face the music with steady hands.


James Roderick Burns


Young Reader remarks:

The book’s got a great cover. It’s a nice colour, and it’s calm and unfussy. I particularly like the picture in the corner, though I’m not quite sure what it is.

The first thing I thought on reading was that they were beautiful poems—each was rich with detail and language. The poems stayed solidly good. They surprised me with their ability to stay original all through. I want to keep the pamphlet! 

All the poems stood out for me, but I especially liked “And the little grey waves clap their hands on the tall grey wall of the hull/ when the wind, in the last vestige of rigging, sings a shakuhachi song” from ‘Sing me a shakuhachi song’. I like the sound and the picture in that line.